Author Archives: Ian Shaw (HippyHippoPhoto)

About Ian Shaw (HippyHippoPhoto)

Photographer; OCA Student, BA(Hons) Photography

Study Visit – Cathedral of the Pines, Gregory Crewdson.

Crewdson is known for his meticulously planned, cinematic ‘frames’. This exhibition, Cathedral of the Pines, is said to be his most personal to date.


Up until this point my relationship with Crewdson’s work was mixed.  On one hand it is impossible not to be full of admiration for the depth of planning, choreography and technical quality in each image.


In fact I would describe his work as a Hollywood movie lasting just 1/125th of a second.


But is it too clinical?  How much of Crewdson am I really  seeing here, or is it sanitised and synthesised? Is it so objectively, so precisely, reconstructed that it loses the essence of the original idea?


Looking wider, how much of the recognition should go to his numerous crew instead?  Does it matter at all that a ‘Director of Photography’ is employed to do a lot of the thinking and whether or not he actually presses the shutter:


There are recurring themes in the works: Bare bulbs; cars with open doors; semi naked ladies staring blankly; sheds or outside toilets.  The holes in the ground – reminiscent of his tales of his his father’s psychotherapist practice on the basement of his childhood home.


There is a curious portrayal of the genders too.  The female is seen in many images as naked, wet hair, staring forward at nothing obvious.  The signifiers are of vulnerability and introspection.  By contrast only one male is shown completely naked, but safely cocooned within the steel shell of his VW Camper.


It is tempting to treat each image as an intellectual puzzle, knowing that each and every element in the image is placed deliberately the brain tries to ‘solve’ the riddle.  I’m trying to find the reason for every included element like a scene of crime detective.  Like an accountant going over a balance sheet, I feel that everything is becoming objectified rather than a subjective artistic view.


But it dawned on that the opposite might actually be true.  Since every element is a faithful reproduction of Crewdson’s original vision for the photograph, it could equally be argued that we are seeing a reproduction that is very faithful indeed.  Like a Madame Tussaud’s waxwork – everything uncannily replicated.  Why the recurring themes like car doors and blankly staring ladies?  Is Crewdson moving the key elements of his mind around, juxtaposing them in different scenarios?  We all have recurring thoughts and dreams that we seek to reconcile as part of our life work.


A fellow student questioned whether we would challenge a painter, having spent months meticulously working on an oil painting, in a similar way.  Clearly we would not.  So is it fair to challenge Crewdson for being meticulous about his work?



I initially found this a challenging exhibition because I started out unsure about the work.  As well as a much better understanding of his work, I came away with great respect for Crewdson.  This was not just for the technical accomplishment, but for the almost obsessive attention to detail to faithfully create what is in his mind.  It is authentic, because I now know he did not miss out anything.



Michael Wolf – Tokyo Compression

this caught my eye and wanted to save it.

Michael Wolf stands on the Tokyo underground platform as the steamed-up windows reveal the commuters that scroll before him. As we look at the disquieting images we might ask why people tolerate this? You can feel the discomfort. The fingers down the condensation-soaked windows look like fingernails against a cell wall.

But we can also see how it feels ‘normal’ to be a commuter in this every day. It is tolerated.  A fascinating insight into what we humans will accept.

The condensation reduces the faces to abstracts, not real people, just shapes and colours behind a window.  We cant see their gaze, their expressions.  It is as though their humanity is suspended while on the train.  Faceless.  Until they arrive at the other end.

At the Flowers Gallery until 1 July.



A response to Mother River by Yan Wang Preston

Inspired by this exhibition at Bradford, i decided to apply a similar methodology to a local walk, taking a photograph at precise intervals of every 1/4 of a mile.

I chose a square format to provide an ‘Instagram’ aesthetic, suggesting snaps taken at intervals along the way.

Key things i learned:

  1. The picturesque wooded areas felt like a significant part of the walk.  The photographs suggest otherwise (the woods only feature in a couple)! Im reminded once again how our selectivity in choosing photpgraphic subjects so often distorts reality. Arguably this is a much more authentic portrayal of the walk.
  2. How much we miss in our everyday lives! There is always something of interest if we care to stop and look.
  3. Im unhappy with the ending, the water.  Does not bring the set to a logical comclusion.  Perhaps a closeup of removed boots or a pot of tea in a cafe would have neen better.

Exercise 4.1 Adverts

Article 8 in Dawn Woolley’s series focuses on the semiotic codes hidden in adverts for the 2015 general election:

After reading it I thought it might be fun to put this into practice, applying the techniques to the very latest adverts for the upcoming 2017 election to be held in just over a week’s time.

This poster carries a strong navy background and text beside an image of Theresa May apparently giving a talk.  The appears to be addressing at least two ladies (we only see the back of their heads) in a factory setting.  The text carries the word ‘Leadership’ in a larger font to the rest.

The photo suggests Mrs May as being in contact with real people – addressing voters in a factory setting. She is animated, talking passionately about something, using hand gestures.  This connotes her having a clear vision she wants to communicate, reinforced by the word ‘leadership’.

The word ‘Conservatives’ is much smaller than everything else on the poster, being about half the size of ‘Theresa May’.  We would be forgiven for thinking the election is a popularity contest for Mrs May instead of promoting her party’s chances overall.  Maybe there is recognition that the person is more appealing to the public than the party is.

The navy background provides – literally – a bold, strong and solid backdrop for the poster.  It also connotes reliability and understated constraint.  It is the colour of business suits and executive limos.

We are being informed that this is a serious, stable person who will act ‘in the national interest’.  It invites us to put to one side our preconceptions of what the Conservtives might stand for: theres a job to be done, and Mrs May is the best person to do it.

We don’t vote for any prime minister in this country, we vote for our local MP.  So it is interesting to conclude that, for this election, the Conservatives are playing themselves down and trying to persuade us that we are instead voting for her personally.


For the Labour Party on the other hand, it was hard to find a poster thst did have their leader on it.

The posters all have a common aesthetic, shared with conference backdrops, of a clear slogan on a bold red background. The principal slogan being ‘For the Many, Not the Few’.  There are witty plays on words such as ‘Let’s make June the end of May’.

Although the Labour Party have red as their party colour, if has often been subdued in previous years (as a red rose against a white background, sor example).  Here the connotation is pure passion, rage, an anger.  Are they trying to suggest that they feel just as passionately about what needs to change in this country as you do? Or are they trying to use this colour to ignite this passion within you? For the latter, it is known that most young people do not support the Conservatves, but many don’t bother to vote for anyone else. Is the poster actually red or really a ‘blue touchpaper’?

The puns certainly might appeal to a younger voter, disengaged with ‘stuffy’ Westminster politics.  The slogans connote being on their side, not the elite class.

The labour Party know that their leader is divisive so are taking the opposite approch to the Conservatives, promoting human values over personality.  The message suggests cooperating with the many folk out there – rather than taking a ‘tough business deal’ to our European friends.


Liberal Democrats:

Leaving to one side the strange merged caracature of Theresa May and Nigel Farage, the Lib Dem posters frequently show hoards of supporters holding ‘Winning Here’ signs like this one:

The message is clear – you are not alone if you support the Lib Dems.  There are many of them.  They are winning ‘here’.  The messages here are less subtle and easier to interpret.  Maybe this lack of sophistication is a deliberate attempt to show them as straightforwrd and honest, alternatively it could just reflect a lower advertising budget.

Assignment 3 – Self reflection


Demonstration of technical and visual skills

I made no use of titles this time – viewers are given much more freedom to interpret the images in their own way (compared to Assignment 2), while I’m still confident that underlying narrative was clear enough without textual support.

Evidence of selecting appropriate camera and lenses for the shooting is given, seeking to avoid use of flash despite working indoors in preference for maintaining a good working relationship with naturally lit subject.  Recognising the need to work quickly and unobtrusively.  Visual awareness shown in spotting expressions and details during the shoot that complimented each other to create an overall cohesiveness to the set.

Social empathy and discernment while shooting in an environment with a very significant emotional context. After the media interest around the story I was keen to understand the personal motivations, approach and differences to a ‘normal’ western death.  I feel this comes through in the selected images as a heartfelt, authentic and loving celebration of life, not as a strange counterculture group on the fringes of Western society (as portrayed in some of the more sensationalist ‘Red top’ press).  As discussed in the main assignment text, I considered the inclusion of some abstracts / close ups of ritual items – shrine statues of Indian gods, personal artefacts of the deceased – but felt this muddled the key meanings around grief/celebration when included in a larger set.

Quality of outcome

Seeking to tell an interesting story made – in my eyes – of two contrasting sides.  Images sorted in a logical and coherent manner to underpin the narrative, revealing an apparent paradox in the grieving process – that of grieving itself and as a celebration of a life.
Evidence provided for the structured approach to image selection (using Adobe Lightroom’s ‘Slideshow’ feature.  Various collections were created with different images, in different orders before settling on the final edit.  In this way the images can be dragged and dropped around to instantly see the effect.  This was one of several approaches suggested by my tutor in previous feedback).
I learned that it was interesting to note how small changes can have a big impact. For example, images 4 and 5 were originally the other way round.  When viewing in sequence this created the impression of them looking ‘away’ from each other rather than ‘towards’. Swapping them around deepened the sense of community between the individuals even though they are not on the same photograph.  As stand-alone images, not in a set, this would of course be irrelevant.

Demonstration of creativity

At one level this is just event photography, in a similar way to how many other weddings, celebrations and other events are recorded every day.  But I felt like I was taking a risk here due to the high sensitivity of the occasion and emotions involved, high level of public/media interest in the story and potential to embarrass my partner had anything gone wrong and – perhaps most significantly – the inability to reshoot any of the images should there be a problem.  This was a ‘one shot’ assignment.
Equally, I was confident that my interpretation of the event met all the assignment criteria for ‘Window’ so I abandoned earlier ideas in preference for this one.  I had to work hard to understand the approach these people were taking towards the death of a loved one and reflect this with sincerity.  With regards to the development of a personal voice, I’ve sought to express the two conflicting emotions in the room as I saw them, rather than this being any suggested ‘theme’ for the photographs by anyone else.  I’ve told my story of their story which has been all over the news.  I leave it for others to judge whether the two viewpoints are consistent.



I’ve sought to demonstrate in this assignment how I have taken on board previous feedback and adapted my approach, especially around the use of my blog, confidence around people and taking a risk.  For example the breaking up of blog posts into separate posts to show the evolution of ideas over time (including the abandonment of ideas which I may one day return to).
I’m also being more succinct in my blog to make it easier for the tutor/assessor to read.  I now use a paper journal for ideas ‘on the fly’ then add this to my blog later.  Im finding that this allows me to ‘think around things’ more before committing them to the blog.
I have also tried to show more of the evolution of my editing process rather than simply presenting the final cut for the assignment. My rationale for my choices has been made clear – including where reflective thinking caused me to change my mind (e.g the use of abstract close ups).

Assignment 3 – selection

Overall approach

In a notebook, I first clarified the underlying narrative that I wanted to express and proceeded to filter-out images that met that criteria.  Short provides some good pointers for this in Context and Narrative (Short, 2011.  p102-107).  The key messages I wanted to express were:

  • Whilst parts of the day were extemely moving and sad, this was fundamentally a celebration of a life well lived
  • The power of objects; small details.  The shrine/alar to the deceased was a key focal point for the day, drawing emotions of both celebration and deepest grief at different times in proceedings.  I wanted to capture the power of sentimentality within inanimate objects.  Every item was there for a specific reason.
  • Biodegradable balloons carrying wild flower seeds were released, carring a strong message of hope, loss, potential new life (along with more obvious metaphors of death associated with letting go; something rising to the sky).

Following this I expected further iterations of sorting and refinement before arriving at the final submission.

The final result is a balance, with an equal number of images either side of a punctum, an unexpected change of viewpoint.  The first half acknowledges loss and grieving.  The second a different pespective, a celebration of life.  The work images are intended to raise questions about how we relate to death as a society.

Key decisions taken in editing

  • The sequence is intended to take the viewer on a journey:
    • Observing a gathering in progress
    • Literal and signified respresentations of loss, solitude and sadness
    • A sudden, unexpected change of perspective
    • A celebration of life then, finally, new hope.
  • I chose not to include the widowed husband in any of the submitted images.  Although he was willing, the reason for this was that I wanted the viewer to have space to explore their own relationship with death and loss, rather than being asked to relate to someone else’s situation.

Flowers feature in three of the images, providing a signifier towards impernance (a key theme in their Buddhist beliefs on life and death).  In the first half of the set the connotation is of lonliness and abandonment – a single stem discarded on an empty chair.  Later in the series the same flower is seem in a more positive light – looking upwards.  Finally, the cycle of life is pointed out to us with new hope for the future – a young boy offering a flower as a gift.

My first ‘cut’ had more detail shots of ceremonial items included.  Although these were visually interesting, I reviewed this decision later in the editing process because they appeared to detract from the key meanings around the main paradox of grieving for a loss and celebrating a life simultaneously.  These were therefore removed to give a final sequence of 11 images.

The images


1. 1/400th at f/5.0. ISO400 70mm


2. 1/400th at f/4.0. ISO400 140mm


3. 1/400th at f/2.8. ISO320 70mm


4. 1/2,500th at f/4. ISO500 70mm


5. 1/4,000th at f/4.0. ISO400 200mm


6. 1/30th at f/7.1. ISO500 35mm


7. 1/400th at f/8. ISO800 43mm


8. 1/400th at f/8. ISO100 24mm


9. 1/400th at f/8. ISO1600 160mm


10. 1/125th at f/9. ISO1600 123mm


11. 1/250th at f/5.6. ISO640 115mm


Short, M. (2011). Context and Narrative. Switzerland: AVA Publishing SA.

Assignment 3 – Execution

On the day of the event I arrived early and made sure that I had time to speak to people.  My objective was to:

1. Spend time with the widowed husband to understand what photos he would want and what (if anything) was off limits.  I sought to establish a rapport, an understanding of their Hindu/Buddhist spirituality and lifestyle. Also, to onlookers I wanted to be seen to be engaging with the deceased’s husband rather than just ‘some bloke with a camera’.

2. Allow my partner to introduce me to other key people.  This, along with the above point, I hoped would allow people to be less suspicious of me with a camera.

3. I learned the schedule for the day – knowing when to expect speaking, ceremonial/ritual practices, drumming, chanting and a balloon release.  I made sure that i understood the practical and spiritual significance of each. This would allow me to tell an authentic story of the day and be in the right place at the right time.

4. It was clear that objects, not just people, were of significance, there being a large altar space with the deceased’s ashes as centrepiece.  It would be essential to capture these details as part of telling the story.

Several hundred images were shot.  The immediate task was then to remove the duff ones to give a contact sheet of viable images.  This ‘first cut’ is below.

The next post will cover selection and ordering of the final set.